Monday, 27 June 2016

Jesus Wasn’t ‘Nice’

Every generation, every culture, shapes Christianity to reflect that culture's concerns. In Europe in the second millennium, it seemed to be very political as kings and popes, people and priests fought over power, property, and the question of who governs. In South-East Asia today we see Christianity being about enduring under the yoke of persecution and oppression. In South America since the 1960s it has been about Liberation Theology as the church, once again, becomes politicised as a social movement.

In the United Kingdom it seems this tendency expresses itself in niceness. Whatever the cause, however engaged with the issues we might be, however we might disagree, lets not be unpleasant, lets be nice about it. The referendum that has just passed has people in its grip and they are engaged with politics in numbers not seen in my lifetime. We fall into three categories. Those delighted with the result, those disappointed with the result, and those confused by what just happened.

While feelings are running high, many are insisting there is virtue in being a good loser, as though this is a game of table-top football. They 'regret' the unbridled language used in claims and counter-claims, insisting the right response is niceness, especially if you are a Christian. 'Lets not allow things to get out of hand,' they insist. 'We don't want any unpleasantness.' Then they reach for the kettle, break open a fresh pack of rich tea biscuits and, 'tea anyone?'

Niceness is not, however, a fruit of the Spirit. There is, 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' (Galatians 5:22) but I don't see niceness in there. I can have love, experience joy, show kindness, pursue goodness and faithfulness, be gentle and self-controlled and still be forthright and outspoken in pursuit of what I regard as right, just, and good, still challenge what is wrong, unjust, and evil.

New Testament figures were many things but nice wasn't one of them.

'John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? produce fruit in keeping with repentance.' (Luke 3:7-8) I don't think John was 'nice' and nor do I believe he would have been impressed with the response, 'OK John, we will try to be nicer.'

Confronted with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said, 'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness...You snakes! You brood of vipers!' (Matthew 23:27-33) I don't imagine the disciples saying, 'That's so rude Jesus! Why can't you be nice?'

In refuting the Jewish Christians who wanted to circumcise Gentile Christians the apostle Paul wrote, 'Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you if you let yourselves be circumcised Christ will be of no value to you at all...I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!' (Galatians 5:2&12) I don't hear anyone saying, 'Really, I don't see surgery as the answer Paul. Can't we sit and talk about this over a cup of tea?'

When Simon the Sorcerer offered to buy from Peter and John the power to endow spiritual gifts, the apostles didn't say, 'You know, there's been a misunderstanding here. Put the kettle on and we'll talk about a preaching series in the Autumn.' No! 'Peter answered, 'May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent..!'' (Acts 8:18-22)

In writing to the church in Sardis, Jesus says, 'I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!' (Revelation 3:1-2) John on Patmos, who wrote and delivered these messages, didn't say, 'That's a bit harsh Jesus. Can't we talk about this over coffee and cake?'

Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see, and the deaf hear, raised the dead, loved children, stood with the disaffected, returned dignity to ordinary people, preached hope and the need to pursue virtue and goodness. He also challenged the rich and the powerful, fought against injustice, shamed hypocrisy, spoke out, stood out, called out and confronted all that is evil in this world. Nice people don't do that. But then, Jesus wasn't nice.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A Week On The M4

It occurs to me that making progress through the typical week is rather like a journey on the M4 motorway. I traveled from Swansea to London recently, along the M4, and contemplated this thought as I journeyed.

Image result for Swansea

Monday is like leaving Swansea after a restful weekend, like setting out on your journey. Duty and adventure call and, although you look back longingly at home and a warm bed, you travel with purpose and perhaps some degree of reconciliation. This simply has to be done.

Image result for Newport

Tuesday is rather like Newport. You feel as though you have already come such a long way but there is yet so much further to go. A sense of resignation sets in as you accept there is no turning back.

Image result for severn bridge

Wednesday is like arriving at the Severn Bridge. Surely this is a major stage on your journey, signalling real progress made. Of course, the other side of the bridge is England but, as my mother used to say, you can't have everything and, while the road actually rises from the bridge, you feel as if the hardest part is behind you and you are on the downward ride to your destination.

Image result for Swindon

Thursday is like Swindon. Here is where reality kicks in and reminds you that, despite your effort and perseverance, there is yet some distance to travel. Like someone popping into the pub Thursday evening for a drink and to find consolation with fellow travelers, you pull into the Leigh Delamare service area for a much needed break.

Image result for Reading Service area M4

Friday is like the Reading service area. There is a real sense of an end in sight. Soon you will see the familiar signs for Heathrow Airport and you eagerly count down the last few junction numbers. But this part of the motorway proves much busier than at your starting point. People are driving faster, more erratically at times. It is just like a Friday afternoon when the weekend is in sight yet there is still much to before you can to walk away from work and enjoy your destination in peace.
Image result for London

The weekend is like London, your destination and, just like visiting any big city, there are highs and lows, bright lights and dark corners. The weekend, like the city, has its attractions and distractions, fulfillment and disappointment, but seldom lives up to its reputation. The weekend is, in anticipation, more than it is in its in realization. It brings rest, recuperation, and hopefully a fresh resolve to make better of things but, come Monday morning...

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Halloween: its Pagan So Get Over It.

Halloween, and we have spent the afternoon with family in Mumbles. A leisurely walk along the front to Verdi’s, ice cream cones, and a stroll back to the car. We saw witches, zombies, and monsters, none more than four feet tall, bless them, and a husky dog dressed as a witch, complete with pointy hat, cloak, and bat wings. Shop workers were getting ‘into the spirit of things,’ suitably daubed with blood, and as we arrived home in the early dusk, parents were walking out with their kids ready to trick-or-treat.

Here in the UK, Halloween has a patchy history and receives a mixed reception. You won’t need to look far to find someone who will tell you, ‘We never had Halloween when I was growing up.’ Its true enough for a certain generation, although it goes back further than people imagine, as far as the 16th century at least. I never went trick-or-treating. In my childhood the day passed unremarked as we looked forward to November 5th and the opportunity to burn an effigy of a Catholic (C’mon, you know that’s what it is). Brits of a certain age will complain about its alien nature, ‘another American import,’ and about the commercialisation.

The younger generation, however, don’t appear to have a problem. They have grown up in a world that sells them, whether Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Diwali, Samhain, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, you name it, and for them Halloween has always been – hasn’t it?

In the United States it seems to be an institution and Christians here have puzzled over how it could sit so easily with so many American Christians. Yet, here we are, facing the same challenge; what do Christians do with Halloween?

You will recognise the word ‘hallow’ perhaps from the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Hallowed be your name.’ We’ll come back to that. To hallow something is to honour it as holy. The plural, hallows, means ‘saints’ and Halloween is short for ‘All Hallows Eve,’ All Saints Eve, and is celebrated on 31 October in a number of countries. It marks a time when, in some Christian traditions, the dead are remembered, including saints and martyrs.

How is it celebrated? Well, Christians in some places will go to church, sometimes abstention from meat is involved, eating certain fruits and vegetables helping to keep the vigil, hence the tradition of bobbing for apples. But, lets be frank, the Halloween I saw today, the one we fret about as Christians is anything but Christian in its content and culture. This is because this is a Pagan holiday, Samhain, that has been ‘baptised’ into the Christian Church in much the same way as Christmas. The latter might be said to be a successful ‘conversion’ inasmuch as people do identify it with Christ, even if their celebrations are worldly and commercial. The latter has failed to catch people’s imagination and is marked with involvement in the occult and divination, from the relatively harmless trick-or-treating, to the more serious celebrations held by Pagans across the world.

The picture (right) is called Snap-Apple Night painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833. It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. The caption reads:Snap-Apple_Night_globalphilosophy

There Peggy was dancing with Dan
While Maureen the lead was melting,
To prove how their fortunes ran
With the Cards could Nancy dealt in;
There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will,
In nuts their true-love burning,
And poor Norah, though smiling still
She'd missed the snap-apple turning.


It is a festival associated in people’s minds with ghosts, ghouls, witches, divination, tricks, and customs that far pre-date Christianity and have nothing to do with the Christian faith. For genuine Pagans it is as much a part of their calendar as is Easter for Christians, or Diwali for Hindus. For Christians there are clear warnings in Scripture against calling up the dead, divination, fortune-telling, and other occult practices. On the other hand, it is part of this world, and Christians are in this world, though we should not be of this world. It is a Pagan festival marked with distinctly Pagan symbolism and we are not Pagans, so why do Christians Celebrate Halloween? Indeed, we are to Hallow the name of God, and that means having no gods before him. We are a holy people, meaning set apart for service to God.

Christians are meant to be a light in a dark world and so we shouldn’t be surprised by the darkness, or that the world embraces the world’s own ways. Nor should we shake our fist at the darkness, which just looks silly. Its dark, get over it. We are not of this world and, while we pray for the world, witness to the world, and hope for the world, we should know that this world will pass away. Meanwhile, surely it is better to light one candle than curse Pagans for doing what Pagans do. How you do that will be different for different people, but we can’t be a light if we don’t stand in stark contrast to the darkness, and whatever we do must, surely, Hallow the name of God.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Fishers of Men, Makers of Disciples

When Jesus called James and John, he said, ‘Follow me , and I will make you become fishers of men.’ (Mark 1:17)

Have you ever been fishing? You should go. You can learn a lot from fishing. My older cousin took me fishing when I was a teenager. I learned to cast a line, draw in a fish, kill it, clean it, and cook it. The first time he went fishing he literally cut a pole from a tree, tied some twine to it, hung a safety pin and bait on the end and waited for the fish to bite; very Huckleberry Finn. He quickly learned the importance of good equipment, the right bait, and the value of patience.Discipleship costs

You have to have a good rod and line, ideally more than one, depending on whether you are fly fishing, using a spinning lure, or sticking a worm on your hook. Your equipment will be determined by what you will be fishing for, river trout, salmon, bream, carp, etc. and that will determine where and when you fish. You need a lot of patience, you see the fish don’t want to be caught. But it is all worth it when you land a decent trout, prepare it, cook it and put it on a plate in front of someone you care for.

If you went to the fish market with a fishing rod and announced you had come to fish, people would think you mad. The fish here are already caught, killed, and fresh ready for the table. In the fish market and kitchen you need a completely different set of skills and tools. What you will buy will depend on how confident you are, although fish are always pretty easy to cook. You will need to have kitchen implements instead of rod and line, condiments have to be carefully chosen, a cooking method decided upon, steaming, grilling, frying, etc. and something like vegetables, or salad and suchlike, to complement the meal.

Evangelism and discipleship are like that. When you evangelise you need a particular set of tools and skills, depending on who you will want to reach out to – children, students, adults, neighbours – and you need a lot of patience because, you see, they don’t want to get caught either. People don’t wake up one day thinking, ‘I hope a Christian comes by today and evangelises me.’ We need to test our methods, ask if our message is clear, whether we are speaking to the heart of their questions, and we need to persevere.

Before ascending back to the Father, Jesus charged his disciples:

‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Mt.28:17-20)

When people become Christians, they are meant to be as committed as those fish in the fish market, dead to their old lives and environment; there is no going back. The difference is, the fish remain dead, but Christians are born again into a new reality. The tools we need to deal with the saved are different from those we use to reach the lost. To make converts we need tools that bid them come, to make disciples we need tools that bid them grow. To the lost we unpack the bad news of their lost state, and bring the good news of Christ. To the saved we unpack the good news of their saved state and bring the challenge of kingdom living.

Too often I see the tools of evangelism brought to the task of discipleship. It does no good to use a lure to win your congregation to the church programme, to encourage engagement. Such a course produces a people who feel they must be convinced all the time, won over to the work of the kingdom. But they are already committed in becoming Christians and if they don’t understand that something is wrong. It only confuses, even robs people, to treat them as though still needing to be persuaded. A church is ill-served that is served the milk and not the meat of the gospel. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, ‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready for it.’ (1 Cor.3:1-2)

There is a sense of frustration here that, with the passing of time, there is still a singular lack of maturity where Paul looked for it. The writer to the Hebrews strikes the same vexed tone:

‘We have much to say…but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.’ (Heb.5:11-14)

Paul sees the fault in a church that fails to respond and grow. Today, I wonder how many churches are in that place because leaders are evangelising the saved, and not discipling them, chiding congregations for not getting involved, when those congregations are ill-prepared for involvement because not discipled. Used to being evangelised, ‘Why should we do this?’ they ask, expecting to be continually persuaded and convinced of the worth of kingdom living before launching out on the course set before them. Such people, to use a sporting analogy, may know the rules of the game, be familiar with the ideas of evangelism, discipleship, worship, and sacrifice, but don’t know the game. They are on the field of play, but have no instinct for what they are meant to do when the whistle blows. Such instinct comes from the discipline of training, learning it, and doing it until it becomes second nature to think and act like a disciple.

I spoke recently to an old friend I hadn’t seen in some time. He told me that his church was doing alright but that people ‘come and go.’ Its a common enough experience as Evangelical Christians across the city, and no doubt across the country, jump from bandwagon to bandwagon, following the crowd to the latest excitement and commotion. Of course, there will always be those spiritual gypsies who wander from place to place, whatever provision a church makes. But what of those who ‘move on’ because where they are simply isn’t meeting their need for discipleship. People have an instinct for growth, for asking ‘what happens now?’ and what are they to do when it appears to be ‘happening’ over there and not where they are?

The greatest obstacle to a church’s growth and development is not the challenges it faces, but the challenges it is protected from. Challenge people in discipleship and they will grow to be the people God intended them to be.

Cost of Discipleship David Platt